Author's note: Written for queer_fest over on Livejournal, with the prompt, "Any fandom, any character, Discovering a new culture (through a friend or lover) is a breath of fresh air - no more having to hide."
For someone chosen by the Goddess of Courage, he had certainly taken the coward's way out.
Settled on Epona's back, hood shadowing his eyes, Link gazed at the sun-dappled division where the southern divisions melted into Hyrule proper, its only marker a wooden sign overgrown with leaves and vines.
It had been seven long years since he had last been in Hyrule. Swallowing back the lump that had risen in his throat, Link shook his head almost violently and dismounted, leading Epona back to the clearing he had seen before. He would set up camp there, get a chance to gather his thoughts...
Give himself the opportunity to change his mind. No, that was not at all ideal.
As the sun sank beneath the trees, the little clearing lit up with his fire - a spark from Din's Fire, precise and refined after years of practise. Gazing into the fire, he recalled other flames - jumping from roof to roof, sparks flying through the air and utterly ignored in favour of the man standing before him.
Sheik. Therein lay the trouble, didn't it?
There had been a spark between them the moment he had first laid eyes on him - and with that spark, a faint queasiness. As inexperienced as Link was with the world, he had seen the looks of disgust that the two men he had seen in Castle Town had got, heard the muttered comments thrown in their direction.
He had seen the two tear their hands from each other as if they had been burnt. But the man and the woman dancing in the town centre - they had seen no such abuse.
Fresh out of the forest, Link had been given a very clear sign. A man and a woman was normal, proper, the right thing. But two men, two boys like him and Sheik - that was wrong and to be reviled. How could he have thought otherwise? The issue had simply never come up in the forest, amongst ageless, never-changing children. Here, his first exposure to how normal adults worked, must have been the truth.
He had been so utterly relieved when Zelda had revealed herself that it was almost like a physical shock. Of course his feelings for Sheik were correct! Sheik was a woman - was Zelda. In all the stories he had heard people tell, hadn't the hero always won the princess?
And then he had returned to his childhood, returned to the castle, returned to Zelda. Impa had emerged from the shadows, had introduced him to her student, Sheik - and, seeing the two standing side by side, all of those earlier uncertainties had returned in force.
Well, he resolved, this time would be different. He would be like the heroes in the stories, the ones who won the princess's hand. He'd be normal.
It was, then, unfortunate that that turned out not to be the case. Link sighed, poking at the fire - his dinner of hard bread and gathered greens sat forgotten at his side as he lost himself in memory.
Oh, he had stayed. He wasn't Kokiri, he couldn't go back to the forest. He had stayed in the castle for months, and the months became a year. Ganondorf was stopped before he could start, peace spread over the land, Link became a trainee guard. Zelda explained - Sheik had protected her for those seven long years, had kept her hidden - Sheik, she said, had been the one watching over Link all along. Zelda and Sheik became friends to him - close friends, friends he would spend every free minute with.
The rumours began to spread that young romance was blooming between the forest boy and the young princess, and Link encouraged those rumours along. Wasn't the princess pretty, he'd tell the maids innocently, wasn't she growing beautiful?
And yet while he could recognise that Zelda was indeed growing beautiful, she didn't make his heart flip in his chest like Sheik did.
So he left.
Stopping only to claim Epona at the ranch, he had set off - through the Lost Woods, to find Navi for her advice, to find himself.
Instead, he found Termina, and the falling moon. In three days spread over months, he stopped the moon and saved the day. Perhaps this was the escape he had been seeking - a new world where he could grow up far from Sheik's presense.
He settled into a room at the Stock Pot Inn until he could find his feet, an unaccompanied child in a strange city. And then every glance of Kafei's red eyes would make his stomach tighten, and every glimpse of blonde hair and tanned skin in the busy city would make sudden hope and dread surge through his veins, and every couple would make his heart ache with envy, and so he packed his bags again.
By the time he was thirteen, he had found his way out of Termina, back to the Lost Woods - and then down again, down and out past the little forest village he had grown up in, past the borders into new lands.
Grumbling, Link reached for the bread, tearing into it viciously with his teeth. It had almost been ideal, hadn't it? After months of wandering he had stumbled across a little village, under attack from a gang of rogue Moblins. He had stopped them - a short, skinny thirteen-year-old weilding a sword almost too big for him - and, in gratitude, they had allowed him to stay.
He had taken to farming, drawing the plough with Epona, sleeping in the tiny inn there. An out-of-the-way little place, they had had few visitors - his temporary room had become his permanent one, the innkeeper and his daughter both friends and a strange sort of family. When his daughter had expressed interest in the young man sleeping under their roof, Link had not complained.
He had been sixteen when she had first kissed him. Months later, at seventeen, they had stolen away to a quiet field so they could be together. Link closed his eyes and imagined dark musician's hands against his skin, golden bangs instead of chestnut curls hanging in red eyes and not blue. The innkeeper's daughter was a beautiful girl, one that anyone who was normal would find appealing...
And yet it was to Sheik that his thoughts strayed to at her touch.
She had known, he suspected. Perhaps she had seen the way his gaze wandered to the young men that would occasionally stay beneath their roof, or the way Sheik's name would be on his lips in moments of intimacy.
The urge to see him again was building.
What was he afraid of? Of rejection, of becoming an outcast. But he was already an outcast, wasn't he? A self-induced exile to run away from the things he feared. Wasn't that the mark of a coward? The Triforce mark no longer glowed on the back of his hand, but he had been blessed by Farore. He had been chosen by the Goddess of Courage.
He could not and would not be a coward.
A month and a half before he turned eighteen, nearly seven years to the day that he had first drawn the Master Sword in a time that no longer existed, he packed his bags, kissed her goodbye, and walked away.
And now there he sat, staring at the patch of darkness through the trees where Hyrule lay.
The next day, in a timeline that did not exist for him, he would awaken in the Sacred Realm and first lay eyes on Sheik.
The next day, on the other side of the rising moon, he would return to the castle and see him again.
Link exhaled shakily and spread the bedroll. The next day, he would prove just how much courage he had, to show that he was not a coward. He was practically a grown man - he could no longer run away from his problems like a child.
The next day, he vowed, everything would change.
The first time he had walked into the castle courtyard, he had been a bewildered child, fresh out of the forest, stealing past guards when they turned their back.
The second time, he had stolen past them with the experience of Hyrule in ruins, grimly determined, relieved, and about to discover that that relief was probably unfounded.
Now, he walked in steadily, one of the guards accompanying him more out of protocol than any real consideration of threat. He was, after all, practically one of them - a trainee guard for a time, and an honoured friend of the princess. Despite the thump of his heart he could feel beneath his ribcage, Link walked on steadily, eyes straight ahead.
When he finally stepped into the sunlit courtyard, his breath caught in his throat. Zelda, grown again, was settled on a lounger beneath the window, watching with a smile as Impa sparred with a young man in a uniform similar to hers, lean legs covered by fabric, muscles of his arms standing out from the exertion, armour moulded now to a broad, masculine chest. For just a moment, Link couldn't breathe.
It was Sheik who spotted him first, red eye widening beneath his bangs. He no longer wore his face covered, Link noted dazedly.
"You came back," he practically breathed, ducking Impa's next swing and breaking away from her. "Link..." There was a genuine smile crossing Sheik's face, true delight even as Zelda jumped to her feet. "Welcome back."
Even as Zelda dragged him into a hug, excitedly asking him about his travels, Sheik was still all he could see.
He settled back into the castle like he had never left - training, telling Zelda and Sheik about his adventures, growing uncomfortable and flustered and hot every time Sheik brushed by him. Soon, though, even he began to notice that it was deliberate - a hand lightly set on his shoulder, a brush of fingers against his, a nudge of his leg against Link's as they'd sit down for the evening meal. Eventually, bewildered, he confronted Zelda about Sheik's odd behaviour.
"He's pursuing you, of course," she said frankly, then glanced around hastily. Link did too, his eyes widening at her forwardness - as best he could determine, something like that was just not spoken of.
"Then what am I supposed to do?" he practically hissed, the idea of someone overhearing him enough to make him feel sick to the stomach. "I don't - I mean, it's wrong..."
Zelda gazed at him for a long moment, and then her expression softened. Reaching out to cup Link's cheek with one gloved hand, she asked tentatively, "Do you have feelings for him?"
Link was silent. Yes, he wanted to say, but what of the consequences? He had seen how people like him had been treated - outcasts, miserable and alone.
But he had already tried to live a lie, and it was not a way he wanted to continue to live. Wordlessly, he nodded.
Zelda didn't answer immediately, but neither did her face twist in disgust and revulsion. Heartbeat practically audible in his ears, he almost missed the thoughtful sound she made. "Tomorrow," she said with finality, "I will ask Sheik to take you to his village." And she leaned forward to embrace him, leaving him blinking in surprise. "I believe it will be an eye-opening experience."
An eye-opening experience? Link hesitated, thought firmly of Sheik's red eyes, and nodded.
The fact that Sheik was leading Link over the hills past the graveyard, beyond the Shadow Temple, and skirting the side of the mountain was, to his mind, really quite secondary to the fact that he was holding his hand.
"There had been quite a few minor skirmishes after the Civil War," Sheik was explaining as he led Link onwards. "And really, the old village was extensively damaged. We would have to rebuild, of course, but everyone knew Kakariko's location now."
"So you built a hidden village?" Link asked, pleased at how steady his voice managed to stay. "Who knows about it now?"
Sheik shrugged, letting go of Link's hand briefly to push aside a stubborn shrub. "The Sheikah community. Zelda. And a few other Hylians - the friends and lovers of some of its residents." Was that the briefest of hesitations before the word 'lovers'? Link's forehead creased as they made their way through - the path had turned winding and stony, now, the trees thinning out as they rose higher into the foothills.
"Are there many of those?" he asked softly, and Sheik half-turned away, a sliver of skin barely visible through his hair.
"There are," he said softly, "It's taboo for a Sheikah to have offspring with a non-Sheikah, but there are a great many with Hylian lovers. It's generally well-regarded."
The climb had largely stopped, now, a rocky arch forming a short tunnel. Ahead, Link could see glimpses of movement - people, moving amongst the the main street, tending to the gardens cultivated amidst mountain stone, perched atop roofs and a near-identical watchtower to the one in the village further south. Sheikah adults, Sheikah children, they dominated the scene.
And yet, here and there were glimpses of fair skin, blue or green eyes. (Link was even fairly certain one of the women he caught sight of was Gerudo.) Hylians with Sheikah, Sheikah with Sheikah. Men and women of many races mingling together.
And - a lump grew in his throat. Rarer, but hardly an invisible minority. Women walked hand in hand with women. As he watched in amazement, a man slipped an arm around another man's waist, head resting on his shoulder. And they were not without family, either - a little Sheikah brother and sister tugged at the hands of their two fathers, chattering fluently in a language Link didn't quite understand.
"The Sheikah," Sheik said, his voice cautiously conversational, "Do expect that the only offspring born in the community would be to two Sheikah. But who people choose to give their hearts to..." A smile touched his lips lightly. "That is no one's business but their own."
And then, reaching for Link's hand, he led him into the village proper, stopping to smile at the two children as the little girl raced up to him. "Link, this is Naziya and her brother Sahil," he said, lifting her up and setting the child on his hip. And then he nodded to the two men - "And their fathers, Kardama and Anzir."
"A pleasure," the one labelled Kardama said with a smile, holding a hand out for Link to shake. He did so with some sense of awe - could there really be people this unbothered by this openness? "So you're the famed Link - my cousin has spoken extensively about you."
Link was about to ask who his cousin was when a chance glance at Link saw the Sheikah duck his head, features stained pink. Sheik had talked about him, then?
"It's nice to meet you too," he said with a faint crooked grin, nodding to Anzir as well. "I've never been anywhere like this."
Anzir, giving him a searching look, made a thoughtful sound and sat back a little. "No, I suppose you wouldn't have," he murmured, giving the Hylian a sympathetic smile. "I hope you enjoy your stay here."
Link shivered a little - vaguely, he felt like his head had been scrubbed, his inner thoughts laid bare. "I hope so," he echoed, drifting unconsciously closer to Sheik. This place was open enough to leave him feeling wrong-footed and uncertain - people like him walked hand in hand in the street.
They were not afraid.
Then, Link decided, neither would he.
The setting sun had turned the mountainside blood red.
Link was growing to love red. In Hyrule, the first time, it had caught his imagination and his attention, associating it with protection and comfort instead of blood and pain - but it had also meant deep confusion, and not the comforting predictability of violence. In Hyrule, earlier, it had pained him, had been a constant reminder. In Termina, it had haunted him, and in the southern lands, he had yearned for it.
"What do you think?" Sheik's soft voice came from behind as he approached the window - Sheik's childhood home had been built into the side of the cliff face, cool and comfortable further in, sunlit and golden near the wide windows. Seated cross-legged on the bed in the little guest annex, Link gazed out at the sight, watched couples of all types take in the last of the sunlight and watching the red.
"I think it's really nice, but it could do with more trees," he said softly, elbow against the frame, chin in his hand.
There was a dip as Sheik joined him on the bed,surprise melting into understanding. "That wasn't really what I was asking," he said quietly, eyes as red as the mountainside fixed on his guest. "Link, what do you think of this place? Of its people?"
Link laughed softly, but the bitterness that would usually accompany it was strangely diminished today. "Then," he started, and sighed. "Then, I think I've acted like a coward."
Sheik's gaze slid from his face, settled on the mountainside as well. "I do not blame you," he told the Hylian gently. "The Hylians can be hostile to people like us."
Something in Link's chest tightened - then he knew, and he was the same, and then...
"Zelda was much the same as them," Sheik continued on, still stubbornly not looking at Link's face. "At first. Impa first brought her here when she was nine, and then she understood - I think she has always been particularly good at understanding us."
There was a self-depricating smile on Sheik's face, Link discovered when he turned to face him. "Us?" he repeated uncertainly, breath catching when Sheik turned to face him.
"Us," he whispered, and held a hand out for Link. "She gives us our blessing," he said suddenly, grip tightening briefly around Link's hand. "If we wish to acknowledge this - if you wish to. I know this is new to you, and -"
"Sheik," Link breathed, and turned back to gaze at the street below. "I ran away because I was scared. It meant that... that we'd be outcasts. People would say things, they'd throw stones... I didn't want to drag you in to that, and I was afraid." He let out a sigh at the word - suddenly, it felt like a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. "I was afraid," he repeated as he watched two women laugh and smile and touch each other softly, comfortably. "But everyone here isn't, and..."
Something very much like a laugh and just a bit like a sob bubbled up. "And if they're not afraid, then neither am I. I'm not abnormal, I'm just me." He sniffled, bringing a hand up to wipe his nose. "And if you'd let me, I'd like to be me with you."
Sheik chuckled, and Link could swear there was dampness glimmering in his eyes too. "Then I'd quite like for you to be you with me," he said with a matching crooked smile, and leaned in for the very barest brush of lips across Link's cheek. "I am glad."
Behind him, the fading sunlight had turned the mountainside from red to iron grey, fading to inky black as the stars began to emerge. But in a little room built on the side of a cliff, in a village that he had barely suspected existed, with Sheik's warm eyes lit up at the sight of him and only him, Link had all the red he ever wanted.